About three dozen people gather outside the Wisconsin governor’s mansion in Maple Bluff, Wis., on Nov. 24, 2020. Event organizers sought to draw attention to the thousands of inmates and staff who have contracted COVID-19 in state prisons and called for Gov. Tony Evers to slow the spread of the disease by reducing overcrowding in prisons. Before the pandemic, Evers set a goal to cut the state’s prison population in half. But 23 state prisons still exceed their designed capacity. Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch
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Credit: Claire DeRosa / Wisconsin Watch

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Today we highlight our investigation of Wisconsin’s struggle to contain COVID-19 in its prisons, where about 10,800 inmates have been infected — more than half of the population — and at least 25 have died.

Vanessa Swales interviewed more than a dozen inmates at seven state prisons — as well as their families and public health experts. Inmates at five prisons said they witnessed times in which infected inmates were not separated from others. Staff compliance with a Department of Corrections masking mandate is inconsistent depending on the prison, inmates say. And chronic overcrowding remains a major factor driving prison outbreaks in Wisconsin and other states. 

Advocates for inmates say they are disappointed that Gov. Tony Evers has not done more to alleviate overcrowding during the pandemic. The state’s prison population has dropped significantly during the pandemic — but it remains more than 2,000 inmates higher than the design capacity of the prisons.

Top Stories 

About three dozen people gather outside the Wisconsin governor’s mansion in Maple Bluff, Wis., on Nov. 24, 2020. Event organizers sought to draw attention to the thousands of inmates and staff who have contracted COVID-19 in state prisons and called for Gov. Tony Evers to slow the spread of the disease by reducing overcrowding in prisons. Before the pandemic, Evers set a goal to cut the state’s prison population in half. But 23 state prisons still exceed their designed capacity. Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

‘He shouldn’t have had to die’: COVID-19 infects half of Wisconsin inmates, five times the overall state rate Wisconsin Watch 

7 virus variants found in US carrying the same mutation The New York Times 

The superspreaders behind top COVID-19 conspiracy theories Associated Press 

As temperatures drop, Milwaukee area homeless shelters battle cold and coronavirus Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Wisconsin’s homeless population prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations, still behind many other groups The Journal Times 

City of Milwaukee has issued $28,000 in fines to businesses for COVID-19 violations — a third of them to one bar Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin labs use genomic sequencing to track spread, ‘architecture’ of new coronavirus strains WPR  

Dangerous wind chills close coronavirus testing sites in Milwaukee WPR 

What’s behind the vaccine shortage? Cap Times 

What are we missing? And how are you coping? Help us provide critical information and accountability by filling out this form or emailing us at tips@wisconsinwatch.org.

Quotable

“I think it is surprising. We didn’t think we’d see quite the absence of flu that we’ve seen. …Obviously we are very happy about it.”

—  Nasia Safdar, director of infection control at UW Health in Madison, speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

“We know that the amount of disease in the community is completely reflected as to what’s happening in school. If there’s more disease in the community, there will be more in school. … So, I would say this is everybody’s responsibility to do their part in the community to get disease rates down, so we can get our schools opened.”

— U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky, speaking on CNN

Data to note

Here’s a look at the state Department of Health Services vaccine dashboard, which shows that nearly 40% of Wisconsinites ages 65 and older have gotten at least one dose — as have 12.3% of the state’s overall population.  

https://bi.wisconsin.gov/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js

DHS continues to log fewer daily infections, with the seven-day average of daily cases now at 763 — the lowest since early September. Deaths also are down to a seven-day average of 16 per day, the lowest since mid-October. Wisconsin’s pandemic death toll now sits at 6,166. 

Public health officials continue to urge Wisconsinites to wear masks and practice physical distancing until vaccinations are more widely distributed. 

WisContext offers this visualization of Wisconsin COVID-19 infections and deaths.

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Calculate your exposure risk

In Wisconsin, even small gatherings can carry a big risk of exposure to the coronavirus, according to a nationwide tool that estimates the danger by the size of gathering and county in which it is held. Data scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Stanford University developed the tool, which you can find here

Resilient Wisconsin

La Follette High School’s Minority Services Coordinator John Milton serves as a mentor to students, and checks in with kids through video each week. Credit: Ruthie Hauge / Cap Times

People helping others and showing resilience during this time of anxiety. Send suggestions by tagging us on social media — @wisconsinwatch — or emailing us: tips@wisconsinwatch.org

As pandemic endures, La Follette staffers focus on personal connections, community Cap Times 

An audiologist explains ‘mask-induced hearing loss’ and ways to help Appleton Post-Crescent 

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The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

The byline "Wisconsin Watch" represents members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's editorial and public engagement and marketing staff.